Is it the Job of Science or Philosophy to Account for Consciousness?

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The success of natural science over the last five hundred years has been truly mind-blowing. It doesn’t follow, however, that science is well-suited to answering all questions. Sam Harris has suggested that science can answer the questions of ethics as well as our questions about the nature of reality. But like many, it seems to me that there are many ethical questions which are just not suited to being answered scientifically. There’s no experiment that will tell us whether ethics is ultimately about maximizing good consequences or about fundamental rights and duties.

It is commonly assumed that the task of explaining consciousness is scientific rather than philosophical. I think that’s half right. It’s the job of neuroscience (among other things) to establish the neural correlates of consciousness (NCCs), that is, to work out which physical states of the brain are correlated with which subjective experiences. We have a robust and well-developed experimental approach for answering these questions.

However, establishing the NCC is just one half of a theory of consciousness. We also want to explain those correlation, to work out why certain physical states are correlated with experiences. As things stand, I think this is a philosophical rather than a scientific question. Philosophers have offered a number of different answers to this question. Here are three of them:

  • Naturalistic dualism – A subjective experience is a very different kind of thing from a physical brain state, but the two are bound together by natural law. In addition to the laws of physics, there are fundamental psycho-physical laws of nature which ensure that, in certain physical circumstances, certain experiences emerge.
  • Materialism – Each subjective experience has a purely physical nature. Having subjective experiences – feeling pain, seeing red – wholly consists in having certain complex patterns of neuronal firing.
  • Panpsychism – Each physical state has a purely experiential nature. Physical science tells us what matter does whilst leaving us in the dark about what it is. Having physical states – being negatively charged, being a certain pattern of neural firing – wholly consists in having certain kinds of subjective experience.  

All of these theories are empirically equivalent: there is no experiment that can decide between them. That’s not really a surprise, as this is not a purely empirical question. It’s rather a question of why something that is publicly observable (brain activity) always goes together with something that is not publicly observable (subjective experience). This is isn’t the kind of question an experiment can answer, just as questions about the fundamental character of ethics can’t be answered experimentally.

One option is agnosticism. If we can’t decide between these views experimentally, then maybe we should simply say that we don’t know which is true. Another option is to try to decide between them on the basis of non-experimental considerations. In other words, to do philosophy.

If I don’t think explaining the NCC is a scientific question, why is my book subtitled ‘Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness’? The task of explaining the NCC is currently in the domain of philosophy. But when a broad consensus arises as to how to address a question, philosophy turns in to science. The aim of my book is precisely to develop such a methodology for that bit of the science of consciousness which is currently in the domain of philosophy.  

So is it the job of science or philosophy to explain consciousness? As things stand, the task of accounting for consciousness is partly scientific (establishing NCCs) and partly philosophical (explaining the NCCs). If we one day achieve societal consensus on how to address the latter half of the puzzle, the task of accounting for consciousness will move entirely into the domain of science. I think this is starting to happen, but – just as at the start of the scientific revolution – there needs to be some serious engagement with philosophy before we get there.

The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.

16 Comments

  1. cadmar larson says

    Yes, but science should be studying the mechanisms for consciousness! For example, all physical objects are vibrations of waves with peaks and troughs and amplitudes. Our brain with all its neurons and molecules have peaks and troughs. However, the mind seems to be consistent, either it is on or off, and is only hampered by physical restraints, such as being tired or from a sedative. Our consciousness does not seem to change as one has more and more experiences. Whereas, waves are always interacting, attaching themselves to other waves. This suggests the mind and consciousness is not a part of the brain but uses the brain for communicating. Here’s a short four-minute video on this subject:

  2. Hi Philip,

    I agree with most of this, however I’m not seeing how the datum of phenomenal consciousness could be folded into science in the way you’re suggesting.

    I think science is necessarily empirical — to the extent that it drifts from empiricism it ceases to be science. And yet we have no empirical grasp whatsoever on how to judge competing explanations of the NCC. We are left with only philosophical criteria such as coherence, clarity, parsimony and intuitive appeal. This question, it seems to me, is doomed to be forever philosophical.

    Which also means it will likely never be satisfactorily resolved such that a consensus is formed, even if some of us happen to have the right idea.

    • But it’s the same with empirical data. There are always an infinite number of theories that account for the data, and we must choose between them on basis of coherence, clarity, parsimony, etc. Sometimes the choice is obvious, sometimes it’s not (e.g. quantum mechanics). What I’m proposing is adding another datum to science on top of the data of 3rd person observation and experiment: the reality of consciousness. But the task is pretty much the same, just with an expanded set of data. I personally think the current attraction to materialism is due to sociological reasons, e.g. people being blown away by success of physical science and drawing wrong conclusions from that, and I think that it may be easier to get consensus when that certain social pressures recede. But it may also be that consensus forever alludes us….I guess that’s just life…nobody said it was going to be easy!

  3. Pingback: Consciousness between Science and Philosophy (response to Philip Goff on panpsychism) – Footnotes2Plato

    • Lee Roetcisoender says

      Well written essay Matthew; I especially like this comment: “Humans are just an especially intense expression of something Nature has been doing from the get go.”

      In agreement with Richard Rorty; what is required for us to move forward is a new vocabulary and a new set of metaphors. We are restrained by our current vocabulary with the limiting definitions of words that we use to express new ideas and concepts. The term consciousness is such a word. It’s origin like many words comes from Latin and is essentially anthropocentric with its meaning: “together to know us, a state of being”.

      Using our own phenomenal experience as a reference point from which to characterize phenomenal experience for other systems is misdirected. Ours is a subjective reference point from which we then attempt to make correlations to some thing that is fundamentally objective. In laymen’s terms it simply means we are just too dumb to figure it out. And as long as we are unwilling to distance ourselves from our selves nothing will change.

      Peace

      • Hmm, I am not sure analytic philosophers have the best take on the texture of “phenomenal experience.” Continental phenomenologist have done a much better job here, but from a Whiteheadian point of view, there’s still room for criticism. Rather than rooting experience in the intentional structure that seems to be unique to humans or at least mammals, as Husserl et al do, Whitehead roots it in a prehensional process that is far more generic.

      • Lee Roetcisoender says

        Matthew,

        To reframe the thrust of my point: Both you and Goff are Institutionalized philosophers which makes you philosophologists, not philosophers. Philosophologists are satisfied to further their own academic careers by writing what philosophers of the past had to say, adding more footnotes to the work of Plato and Aristotle.

        As a discipline, philosophy needs to break out of this restricted and constrained paradigm of philosophology and blaze a new path forward by actually challenging the models the West inherited from the Greeks along with our current definitions. For example: the term consciousness is conflated with a physical system called mind, as is the term idealism and panpsychism. This conflation does not add clarity to the search for meaning, it restricts meaning.

        Taken as a whole and individually as the aggregate that make up the whole, our physical universe is a living dynamic system, a system which consists of organic and non-organic life, a living system which by default makes all of these individual parts alive and dynamically aware, fully capable of emerging into more complex and uniquely novel systems. This unified whole and the aggregate of its parts are not a mind as delineated by the terms consciousness, idealism and panpsychism.

        The physical system we refer to as mind is the last system to arrive on the scene after billions of years of evolution. In order to cogently reflect this brief assessment of our physical universe, new terms and definitions will need to be developed. Although I do not believe a paradigm shift will occur, I wish you the best of luck in your career.

        Peace

  4. Kevin Pryor says

    I think this a time of major paradigm change which is about the only time philosophers can lead rather than follow scientists because philosophers are more concerned with the forest rather than the trees.

    When scientists start agreeing with you then ironically you will become less relevant and follow scientists rather than lead until the next paradigm shift.

    • Lee Roetcisoender says

      Well written essay Matthew; I especially like this comment: “Humans are just an especially intense expression of something Nature has been doing from the get go.”

      In agreement with Richard Rorty; what is required for us to move forward is a new vocabulary and a new set of metaphors. We are restrained by our current vocabulary with the limiting definitions of words that we use to express new ideas and concepts. The term consciousness is such a word. It’s origin like many words comes from Latin and is essentially anthropocentric with its meaning: “together to know us”.

      Using our own phenomenal experience as a reference point from which to characterize any phenomenal experience is misdirected. It’s a subjective reference point which then attempts to make correlations to some thing that is objectively fundamental.

      Peace

    • Philip Goff says

      Nicely put. I think I agree with that. I’d be very happy to slip into irrelevance.

  5. When the fabric of the cosmos is shredded by experiments at CERN, the particles generated provide evidence for equal but opposite amounts of spacetime and anti-spacetime.
    There are several theories of a tetrahedral lattice structure of spacetime.
    If such theories also apply to anti-spacetime, the fabric of the cosmos could be constructed as a double layer of tetrahedral lattices.
    If consciousness exists at the interface between these two layers, it could exist within the fabric of spacetime and also be external to it, continuous with the cosmic consciousness that is external to the big bang.
    Each tetrahedral cosmic pixel has a minimum size determined by the Planck length of around 10 to the minus 35m, whereas the consciousness within it can be infinity large or infinitely small.
    In this way the physical reality of the big bang exists within the whole of cosmic consciousness and cosmic consciousness exists within the physical reality of the brain.

    The physical reality of

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  8. Hi Philip, is it possible to remove the final, incomplete sentence from my comment, which is clearly an error! Kind regards- John Kaczmaryk

    On Thu, Oct 29, 2020, 10:44 AM Conscience and Consciousness wrote:

    > Philip Goff posted: ” The success of natural science over the last five > hundred years has been truly mind-blowing. It doesn’t follow, however, that > science is well-suited to answering all questions. Sam Harris has suggested > that science can answer the questions of ethics as w” >

  9. Pingback: Metaphilosophy links #6 – The Metaphilosophy Blog

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